A well-publicized Pew Survey given publicity in yesterday’s Washington Post announced a kind of “doom” for traditional religion in this country. I do not dispute most of the results as an accurate snapshot of today.
But snapshots have a way of recording things that eventually are replaced by other realities in the ensuing years. It is clear that what we have called “traditional religious practice” is in trouble. Cultural trends no longer favor the Sunday observance or the sectarian loyalty with which many of us over fifty grew up.
A mere fifty years ago, a snapshot of American religious practice would have depicted us as a vastly religious country, deeply rooted in sectarian loyalties and invested in the Judeo-Christian heritage.
What a difference fifty years has made! And who is to say that things won’t be different in another fifty years?
The Pew survey announces what we already know: Americans are very dissociated from sectarian religion and religious practice. The erosion is steady, and, if we are honest, those of us who do attend have been noticing it for years.
All this said, in my 54+ years on this planet, I have seen a lot of shifting in religious observance. Any study of the history of this country will show lots of ups and downs. I am not so ready to cry doomsday for the Church or religion as a whole. Americans, and humans in general, are a fickle lot: what is “out” today has a way of being “in” tomorrow.
Some will argue that secularism is a megatrend that will continue to grow until there is no place for religion at all. We shall see. Something tells me (e.g., the Lord in Matthew 16) that the Church, with a 2000-year history and 3000 years before that in the Jewish situation, is here to stay. That Timothy should be told by St. Paul to preach the Gospel in season and out of season, suggests that winter is as much a part of the picture as is spring. One Pew survey does not seal our fate.
Yet we ought not simply ignore surveys like these either. Perhaps we can evangelize more effectively; perhaps we can be clearer or more aware of ways to reach this secular world.
But in the end, do not allow a snapshot to be a megatrend. As I write this reflection, a group of college students from American University is singing a concert of mostly sacred music in our Church. In the days of my own “secular rebellion” during college, it was Catholic music that called me back. At this very moment, the choir is singing “Ave Maria” by Josquin Des Prez (see video below). Perhaps in ten years the seeds of beauty, goodness, and truth sown by this music will come to fruition in the lives of some of these students and listeners as it did for me. For now, they live in a secular world and attend a secular university. But music, the Spirit, and the Lord have their way. If it could reach me it will reach them if that is necessary. I intend to go to each of them and call Mother Mary’s gratitude on them for the song and other beautiful sacred pieces they sang.
Let’s look at some excerpts from the Washington Post article summarizing the Pew research poll. The original text is in bold, black italics. My comments are in plain, red text. These are only excerpts; the full article is here: Sharp Decline.
Christianity is on the decline in America, not just among younger generations or in certain regions of the country but across race, gender, education and geographic barriers. The percentage of adults who describe themselves as Christians dropped by nearly eight percentage points in just seven years to about 71 percent, according to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center.
The situation is much worse in parts of Europe, where close to 70% identify as atheist[*]. Europe-wide only about 10% of Catholics go to Mass at all. The problem there began shortly after World War II. I have written before about how C.S. Lewis decried the loss of faith in Europe as early as 1948 in his Latin Letters.
The country is becoming less religious as a whole, and it’s happening across the board. … In 1990, 86 percent of American adults identified as Christians, compared with 76 percent in 2008.
Here are three key takeaways from Pew’s new survey.
1 . Millennials are growing even less affiliated with religion as they get older … “Some have asked, ‘Might they become more religiously affiliated as they get older?’ There’s nothing in this data to suggest that’s what’s happening,” he said. Millennials get married later than older generations, but they are not necessarily more likely to become religiously affiliated, he said.
I have found, in my own life and in what I have observed in the lives of others, that there is really no way for anyone to predict this. At the age of 20 I would never have thought that I would even be a believer today, let alone a priest. Events and the people we meet have a lot to do with belief and with our future.
2. There are more religiously unaffiliated Americans than Catholic Americans or mainline Protestant Americans. The numbers of Catholics and Protestants have each shrunk between three and five percentage points since 2007. The evangelical share of the American population has dropped by one percentage point since 2007.
This is not surprising. In my 25 years a priest, the number of Catholics in the pews of the Washington Archdiocese has decreased (on average) by one percent per year, according to our own internal statistics. Nationwide, those who say they are Catholic has increased by over 15 million during that same time period [*]. But, the “real” number of Catholics is the count of those who are in the pews each Sunday, and this number has surely dropped. Catholics who do not attend Mass are of no real account to parish life other than the fact that they are one confession away from returning to the faith. They are not utterly lost, therefore, but on the “endangered and MIA Catholics” list to be sure.
The groups experience their losses through what’s called “religious switching,” when someone switches from one faith to another. Thirteen percent of Americans were raised Catholic but are no longer Catholic, compared with just 2 percent of Americans who are converts to Catholicism. “That means that there are more than six former Catholics for every convert to Catholicism,” Smith said. “There’s no other group in the survey that has that ratio of loss due to religious switching.”
There are 3 million fewer Catholics today than there were in 2007. While the percentage of Catholics in the United States has remained relatively steady, Smith said we might be observing the beginning of the decline of the Catholic share of the population.
I suppose by this he means “practicing Catholics,” since the overall number of Catholics has grown along with the increase in U.S. population [*].
Pew estimates there are about 5 million fewer mainline Protestants than there were in 2007.
Some in the Catholic Church think we should imitate the “give the people what they want” mentality of the mainline Protestants. This statistic shows that they are doing even worse than Catholics and Evangelicals, who toe a stricter biblical line on moral issues.
Evangelical Protestants have experienced less decline, due to their net positive retention rate. For every person who has left evangelical Protestantism after growing up, 1.2 have switched to join an evangelical denomination.
OK, but they were small to begin with, and there is a lot of revolving door, “going to the latest ‘hip’ service” among the Evangelicals. Frankly, a lot of them are ending up with us, after they finish running through all the ephemeral evangelical denominations and trends. If they read Church history and ponder theological consistency, they often head our way. We have many magnificent converts from the Evangelical denominations.
3. Those who are unaffiliated are becoming more secular – The “nones,” or religiously unaffiliated, include atheists, agnostics and those who say they believe in “nothing in particular.” Of those who are unaffiliated, 31 percent describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, up six points from 2007.
This may run its course since this state of affairs is not normal to the human person or experience.
“What we’re seeing now is that the share of people who say religion is important to them is declining,” Smith said. “The religiously unaffiliated are not just growing, but as they grow, they are becoming more secular.”
But I wonder if it can really be said that their credulousness has lessened. Chesterton once said that when people stop believing in God, it is not they believe nothing, but that they will believe in anything. Today very strange notions are becoming almost religious obsessions. The secular notions of “tolerance” and “niceness” have become almost dogma, such that any naysayer is guilty of “hate” and should be subject to nothing less than arrest or loss of a job or even jail (this is their form of excommunication). Original sin has been replaced by “anthropogenic global warming” and other deep-seated human flaws that speak to our apparent depravity and that we are really at the heart of “paradise lost.” Recycling, even the sorts of recycling that consume more resources than getting new resources, is insisted upon with a sort of religious zeal that is way out-of-balance with purely scientific analysis.
I do not say that these issues have no rational basis; I only point out that they are almost religiously insisted upon in a way that has often eclipsed the same religious zeal of the past that is condemned by these same adherents to these modern “dogmas.”
Perhaps as time unfolds these new “orthodoxies” will be seen as trendy notions, and the new orthodoxy will be labeled the old orthodoxy by the very same fickle believers who are currently rejecting ancient Christian dogma. We shall see, but I am not impressed that the the current trends have the staying power that Pew, et. al. ascribe to them.
White Americans (24 percent) are more likely to say they have no religion, compared with 20 percent of Hispanic Americans and 18 percent of black Americans. The retention rates of the “nones” who say they were raised as religiously affiliated has grown by seven points since 2007 to 53 percent.
I wonder, too, what birthrates will do to these percentages, since believers in “old-time religion” have higher birthrates than seculars who are not even replacing themselves. Worldwide, Muslims and traditional Catholics more than replace themselves, while seculars have a negative replacement rate.
Further, there is the “sorting out” phenomenon wherein those who stay in the Catholic faith will tend to be more pure in observance than the lukewarm who leave. A smaller but purer Church may result. There are some who say that those who speak of the smaller but purer church, get only smaller one.
Time will tell. My anecdotal experience is that those who remain are more intense, interested in Catholic truth, and up for a battle. Time will tell if this continues for the long term.
Be sober about these results, but not despondent. People are fickle and that cuts both ways!
Here is a video of the Choir of American University singing “Ave Maria” in our Church. I asked the director if he gets any “pushback” for singing this sort of religious music (they also sang Spirituals and Mass parts). He said, “No.”
If any of the students who sang or heard this music are among the “nones” (I do not know that any were), something tells me that not all will remain aloof from the faith that produces it. Of this I am a witness.